The Artist’s Support System

I have found, in a rather un-scientific manner, that there seems to be a common ground for some us comic artists, or any artist in general it may seem.  And that is at some point our artistic aspirations will come into conflict with our spouse or significant other.   Now, I’m not saying we’ll be forced to chose between doing our art or helping the wife in the garden… wait a minute, yes I am!

After 29 years of marriage and 25 years of being self-employed, I have a few experiences in balancing my home life with my independent career.  And as webcomic artists, we are independent publishers of our own work.  We know it is a long, hard road to success.  That’s true in most careers.   But the people in our lives that we look to for emotional support often cannot make the leap of faith that we artists are struck with when we do our art.  One cannot describe what motivates us to take pencil/stylist in hand and create our comics.  It is like we’re Lemmings being called to the cliff’s edge and we must answer that damn call!  So it is a difficult if not an impossible balancing act of dealing with our loved ones and our artistic aspirations.

So, let’s turn the microscope onto me.  When I turned 50 in 2007 and made the leap to change careers from Video Producer to Comic Artist, I was met with the tell-tale stare known only to deer gazing into headlights just moments before they’re an item on a claim form for your car insurance.  My wife did not and could not understand why I had made this decision.  Now, as a freelancer, it was not like I quit a job to do my comic, on the contrary, I made the jump into comics because my video career had peaked and was on the downfall due to economic and business situations.

To be blunt, I was going out of business and if the times had changed so much that a person like me was essentially unemployable, then making a career change was not only intelligent, but really the only thing you could do.  But for nearly two years, my wife would not accept the fact that I wanted to become an cartoonist.  It was just beyond her ability to understand.  Ah, a point is building!

So here I am 4 years later.  I consider that my education and internship era in my artistic career.  My wife has grown to essentially accept that I’m doing art as my second career.  As the little motivational quote that’s been making the rounds on the interwebs of late, it is a long road in growing your art and it takes even longer to get good at what you do and even longer to be successful.

Then why is it our spouses have such a hard time accepting what we do?  Yes, I know I’m speaking in rather general terms and really putting a spotlight just on us artists, but hey, this isn’t called the Webcomic Alliance for nothin’ you know!

Then how do we communicate to our loved ones that our making art is something that our souls scream at us to do?  “I must obey my master” Darth Vader said to his son Luke.  I often feel like that when my 14 year old sticks his head into my office late at night and wonders why I’m glued to my monitor drawing the next comic.  It is something I *must* do, there’s no other reason we do it.  Nothing else in my life, outside of my kids, makes me stay up late and lose sleep then creating my next comic.  It’s nutty in a way.  So if we look at it from that standpoint, we should understand how the “normals” in the world don’t get what we do.

I have always found success in putting points of discussion into terms other people can understand.  But art for the most part has always been a misunderstood form.   Do people turn their noses up at a lawyer as they struggle to build a practice?  No, as that is an “accepted” career.  So it falls to us to communicate to those around us what we do is important to us and so much more than drawing “silly little pictures”.

For me, it has never helped that I draw a comic based on Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll with two sexy rock chicks.  Man, folks not only think I’m a silly cartoonist, but a pervert to boot.  But, once someone reads the comic and follows the progression of the strip, they do catch on.  Just recently one of my clients took the time to pull me aside to tell me that he actually read through the archives and how much he admired my abilities and the drive I had to be successful.  I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.

I told him doing the comic was easy, it was something I truly loved doing.  And if your loved one cannot understand that simple fact, then it is up to us to put it in terms they can understand.  I’m no marriage counselor (but I’ve been to one) and it is a no brainer in any relationship that communication is the key to success.  HOW to communicate it is up to you, but communicate it in a way they can understand.  You won’t hit the nail on the head the first time, so keep trying.

It was not an easy transition for my wife to make, and to be honest she is just now tolerating what I do.  It helps that I am doing conventions and the Webcomic Alliance as it brings some “reality” to my efforts.  What really helped swing my wife was that the daughter of one of our good friends saw me at C2E2 this year and told her Mom how cool it was I was the one behind the table making a comic.  She could now see it was more than just a hobby and could be something someday.  

There’s the key: someday.  I’m not gonna tell you it’s a long road to success, because it’s really not.  I’m there now.  It is just how you judge successes.  Am I Donald Trump?  No.  Do I want to be him?  Hell, no.  I want to balance my happiness with my ability to feed my family.  It is not an easy road, but this year, I am beginning to see a small turn in successes and in my abilities.

I have a long way to go and I want to invite you to come along for the ride.  Invite your spouse or loved one to read this article and see if they think I’m as crazy as my wife does.  I vote they’ll side with my wife.  But perhaps reading this together may open the door to a positive discussion about  your aspirations in the comic world.  It can’t hurt and they’ll probably find about a dozen grammatical errors and realize that I’m artist and not a writer for a reason.

Good luck and let me know how you’re dealing with your loved ones in your life versus your comic career.

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Posted in Featured News, Helpful Hints.

32 Comments

  1. Having an artistic background, my wife was sort of aware of what I did. When it came to producing my graphic novel, she didn’t realize how much time and effort and consistent updating has taken place since last year.

    At first, when she’d ask what I was up to for the evening, I’d sheepishly reply that I was working on my comic. Once, she told me that I looked almost ashamed to tell her – as if it was a secret and I was skulking off to watch porn in the basement. So I was up front with her and told her what my aspirations were. She was surprised that I had such an active hobby and has never given me any grief for working on it.

    The key is to find the ‘right’ time to work on your stuff, especially when there are other obligations you have to take care of first. Household responsibilities and being a good partner come first and foremost. Since my comic isn’t an economic necessity at this moment, it ends up becoming more of a “when you have time” type of gig.

    Eventually, you have to fish or cut bait – you may reach a point where you have enough followers that purchase your merchandise and support your comic that you can afford to go full time. But until then, you have to learn how to balance. It isn’t the same for everyone, but you have to realize that spending 4 hours on your comic while your significant other is on the couch upstairs bored out of their skull is NOT the way to get ahead. You need to make an attempt to keep the important people in your life happy. If that means working a bit harder and more efficiently when you are given the time so you can let a few days slide to spend with your loved ones, then you’ll be better off.

    This is where a buffer comes in REALLY handy. It isn’t just for emergencies. It’s for maintaining a balance in your home life so you aren’t a slave to your tablet.

    • Good point Drezz. A buffer is everything – I have two small kids and life is a million times easier when I’m not worried about tomorrow’s post. I’ve actually been making ground on building my buffer past two weeks and it’s going to pay off when I want to take another vacation later this summer. Not to mention the fact that I don’t have that sense of having to “get to the drawing table soon” so I can get my work done. I’ve also been able to get some sleep when I really need to. Of course now the baby has other plans for my sleep schedule!

        • I think if you cut out the “extras” for a month you’d be able to build a buffer – much better than stopping the comic!

          * extras = distractions

          • like.. the webcomic alliance? :0P

            other than walking the dog, exercise, cleaning, and family stuff, there isn’t many “extras” I can cut. And not everyone can be perfectly fine on 3 hours of sleep, Ken!

            As for distractions, I’ve been switching to music while drawing (no TV), and that helps get a comic done maybe a half hour faster. Not sure that’s enough.

            If I want to get a month buffer set up, I think my only way is to keep going at this rate and just not post any of them. Maybe I can post reruns or do a contest, I dunno.

          • Dawn, one thing you can do to build a buffer is work on ways to simplify groups of strips. One panel gags with limited detail or simple sight gags can be fun and a bit less time consuming. Try to cut back on some of the usual detail you put into your strips, work on several at once and then skip around a bit to keep it interesting. Try to keep away from any sort of ongoing storyline and just do one-shot strips. The object is to try to accomplish more in less time. You can always tweak things a bit before you publish, but try to focus on volume for a while. These are things that have helped me build a buffer.

  2. But there is also the gray, in-between area where you’re making money, but it is not enough to support you doing the art/comic full-time. I’m in that zone. I make money at my work, but I have a long way to go to be able to feed my family solely on that income. That gray area is where grief may come in, as you’re essentially putting in the time but not getting the financial returns (yet).

    This same fact is why SOOOO many small business fail in the first year. They’re not prepared to stick it out. It takes at least two years for any business to become profitable. Then the business person is faced with reinvesting in a growing business, or feeding his family. Tough decisions. And not everyone qualifies for SBA loans, so when things get hard financially, people bail.

    Our comics are the exact same thing. If you really want to make money at this, then as you said “fish or cut bait” and I’m at that point where I’m fishing really hard in pulling in small fish. That is hard on a relationship.

    I wanted to share this with folks as I know many of us face these similar issues and they’re not easy ones to deal with, especially with significant others in your lives.

    Thanks for reading man!

    • When I was younger I went to my local comic shop owner, who stocked a LOT of Indie work, and asked him how much I’d have to do to successfully publish my own comics. He said the following:

      “What most people don’t understand is that they have to absorb the costs of six issues before they can hope to break even on issue seven. That’s six issues of printing, advertising, and distributing. That’s how long it takes for word of mouth to spread enough to support it. To make profit enough to cover those first six? Even longer.”

      Most Indie comics in that store never made it to six. The closest I ever saw was five. I’d never thought about how much investment went into it. I doubt many people do. In pages alone, that’s nearly 200 pages! Not to mention other costs on top of that!

      On the one hand, this sounds incredibly depressing, but I actually find it encouraging. As webcomics, we don’t pay for printing, our distributing costs (ie – website) are fairly minimal, and there are many advertising and networking avenues open to us that are fairly inexpensive. Sure, we’re still paying bills, but we’re not pouring mountains of money into a hole that it may take years for us to earn back on top of everything else! As far as Small Businesses go, the internet has made the costs of being a comic creator a LOT easier to endure.

      Of course, telling your wife “Hey Honey, it could be worse!” might NOT be the greatest starting point for the discussion. 🙂

  3. I’m in the amazingly fortunate position that my significant other has dreams that reflect mine. He’d like to be an author, I want to be to be a self-sufficient comic creator. At this point, neither of us have fully realized our dreams, but we’re definitely on the road to getting there. In the meantime, he hunts for work and I bring home bacon. If I’m stuck on a bit of dialog, fight scene, or a particularly sticky bit of mystery, he’s always there for me. At the same time, he’s my point of sanity when I have one of those days/weeks/months where all I can think is “WHAT’s the POINT of LIVING if I can’t be making ART?” and want to throw it all away and become a hobo. So far? Not a hobo. Balance IS good for something!

    So it’s not that he doesn’t get my dream…for me, the challenge is there’s a limit to our mutual experiences. Neither of us went to school for the “impractical” arts. We’re completely self-taught, and that results in some knowledge limitations. How do I format a book for publication? What about ISBNs or distribution? Funding?? Printing??? And what about my artwork? Everything I do is experimental, but sometimes just a tiny suggestion by someone with a good eye (harder shadows, check your line-width) can result in a HUUUUGE leap in quality. My trusty sounding-board cannot offer me help in these realms.

    So I think there’s also the element of Community, both on- and off-line, which is important too. As Byron said, being part of a larger group can add a bit of legitimacy to one’s work. In addition, a community offers a place where people can share experiences, feedback, and support that a spouse/family/loved one can’t. Plus, a group can accomplish things an individual could never hope for. I’m super excited about a local group I just joined — they’re championing an organization called the Comic Book Classroom, AND they’re planning the FIRST EVER DENVER COMIC CON! To say that I am bouncing-off-the-walls with enthusiasm about this DOES NOT GIVE MY FEELINGS JUSTICE! I am so excited to connect and contribute to this group!

    As comic artists, our work is done in confined, solitary spaces. It’s so easy to feel alone and isolated. What I’m learning is that the world is too big a place for people NOT to find commonality if they’re willing to look, or to create! The group I joined started as two guys hanging out at a cafe for months on their own. Now? Comic Cons. Hell yeah.

    • Totally off the subject, but in my opinion you only need an ISBN number if you’re going to distribute through “normal” channels like Amazon or at Retail Comic shops, etc. Lulu will issue you an ISBN with their services.

      For me, I am only selling my books on-line or at conventions independently so thus far I’ve not invested in an ISBN of any sort. But the Cookbook project for Kurt/TGT, we did get an ISBN (about $200 complete) for the book as we’ll be selling in retail outlets.

      Formatting your book for print depends on your printer. Most will give you a template once you decide on a format. The standard comic book size of around 6.5″ wide by 10″ tall is something most printers can handle and templates for that are plentiful. For actually assembling the book, what I use is Adobe InDesign. It is a great tool as it can export into print-ready formats (with the printer marks and everything) for you. The learning curve is a bit steep, but once you get the basics, you’ll rock and roll.

      • FYI, createspace offers you a free ISBN. It’s only for amazon.com, the universal one costs extra, but I figured at this stage of the game, an amazon ISBN can’t hurt.

  4. I think money is irrelevant. If your partner knows that you’re not choosing to be an artist, you just ARE one – they have a choice to make. I know there’s a lot of people who may not be down with the idea of being with someone who’s an artist – but – that person clearly isn’t relationship material then. If you’re with someone who ‘puts up’ or ‘tolerates’ what you do (or want to do) for a living – that’s not cool. Do you want a partner who ‘tolerates’ giving you a b___j_b? Of course not. If they can’t be excited for who or what you are and the things that are vital to your happiness and fulfillment – they’re not excited for YOU and who you are as a person. That’s not cool. Next time you meet some girl and your career comes up and she has that dismissive look – move on. You’ve luckily just avoiding a crap relationship with a boring Muggle.

  5. It’s not that easy when you’re already married and come to the realization that you want to become an artist later on down the line. You can’t just pitch a marriage because your spouse is concerned about your family’s financial stability.

    Artist integrity is one thing. It’s easy to have when you’re young and not tied down with relationships or responsibilities. But it is something you drop in priority when there is family involved, regardless of how badly you want to be successful.

    There’s always going to be a sacrifice of sorts, its just a matter of figuring out what to jettison and what to pursue at any given time. I understand that you don’t want to be hampered by someone who doesn’t share the same interests as you or can’t be happy for your own personal pursuits, but over time people change and so do their interests – you have to figure out what is more important – money, integrity or love.

    • Exactly. People do change and their relationships adapt, or they end up a divorce statistic. It takes to two to tango and a solid relationship is built on give and take by both parties. It may just take one partner longer to come on board… like my wife. It’s working out fine as I have adjusted and take time off from the comic to focus on family (particularly during the summer months) and that’s worked out well. So you can work it out, but it’s not easy.

  6. Good stuff as usual. Thankfully, my wife understood off the bat what I was doing (web comic). She is actually the one who told me to date my drawing and keep them regardless if I think they are crap (I never keep my drawings, I either burn them or shred them. It’s my way of moving-on from a piece that I think isn’t good enough).

    Nice read Byron. Your articles keep me sane and in check with whatever the hell it is (comic – dur) I am doing.

    • Oh, KEEP them. Good reminders of your progression. I have some of my first cartoons from 1970 (yes, I’m that old) and even though I wouldn’t share them with a soul, it’s good to have to see how I’ve come along in, oh, 40 years. Ugh.

      Seriously, don’t keep every piece of scrap, but significant stuff, keep.

      And I’m glad you like my ramblings! It keeps me going! 🙂

  7. I have a very supportive wife when it comes to my cartooning. But for the most part, if she is home, I am not drawing unless she is busy doing something else like watching “Fashion Police” (which thankfully she doesn’t require me to watch with her. I travel for work so can get cartooning done in hotels and in the evenings before she comes home.

    The benefit in her mind is that I still maintain a full time job but I have an enjoyable passion that ends up providing me skills that I can use back on my job. Because of cartooning, I know some things about social media, SEO, web marketing. All things that are marketable skills in the job market and all that I never would have learned if it weren’t for my cartoons.

    That being said she does get on me for walking in the door and immediately logging on to check my comments so I can respond. One reason I do it is to share my thoughts with others and ENGAGE with them. If I had no commenters I may have quit.

    What does amaze me is the people I have come across who decide to make cartooning their living without a cash buffer or a spouse that works a job that can support their family. Then they lament that they can’t earn a living doing cartoons. Most entrepreneurs start out by working on their passion AFTER their day job. Once it begins to take off, they then quit.

    • Let me address your last paragraph. And this may sound like a rant and it is NOT aimed at you Mr. Bearman as I have a great deal of respect for you.

      That said….

      Reality is a harsh mistress, and for a lot of entrepreneurs, there is no “gray area” where they can work two jobs and be successful. For example, if one were to start a Video Rental store (don’t), there is no practical way to work two jobs. The new business requires 80 hours a week or more of your time. Besides running the store, you have all the accounting/merchandising/advertising/etc. chores as well. FOCUS is the key to success to any NEW business.

      I agree, you cannot jump into a new business with both feet and NOT have a back-up plan to eat and pay the bills. Whether that’s a spouse or savings or loans, one has to have capital to start a business.

      And THAT is where I think most cartoonists go awry, they have no business plan what-so-ever. They think by putting up a website, getting some PW ads and having their friends “Like” the page on Facebook the money is going to roll in. WRONG!! If that were true, we’d all be self-employed business owners. This is why a majority of new businesses fail in the first year, lack of capital, and a lack of PLANNING!

      For me to do cartooning full-time requires CAPITAL. I am working on that, but I had to PROVE myself to my investors that I can both create a sell-able product and also run a profitable business. If my Business Plan goes the way I expect, I’ll be Full Time within the year at cartooning. Not just “1977” but other drawing related products as well (not all my own). THERE is the weakness we all face: acquiring Capital.

      S**t or get off the pot. If you have a full-time job, and cartooning is an enjoyable hobby/2nd job, then stick with it and more power to you. BUT if you complain that “if I could do this full-time I’d make money at it” then you’re doing it wrong. Plain and simple. I know, I’ve been self-employed for 25 years and have had great successes and great failures.

      Rant over… 🙂

      • I see what you’re saying, but at the same time I can’t agree fully. Planning? Yes. Focus? Yes. Quitting one job to focus 100% on the other…not the best idea for everyone. Jon Acuff’s book Quitter can outline better than I why, but the big one for me is this:

        Having a job other than my dream job allows me to pick and choose the opportunities I pursue. If I’m relying entirely on my dream job, particularly when I first start out, there is a lot of risk and anxiety that comes with that. My ability to say “no” to bad deals goes way, way down. While working full time on two jobs is stressful, it’s definitely not as stressful as watching my savings dwindle and foreclosing on the house, because let’s face it, people “making it” in this business is already rare. People making it in their first year is nearly unheard of.

        • You won’t fail if you PLAN. It may take you 5 years or more to get the plan together (not unlike me who’s been doing two things for four years now), but you can’t two things and succeed at both.

          I quit my full-time job in 1986 to go full-time into video production when my wife was 6 months pregnant with our first child. If I had continued my Full-time job, working 9-5, there was NO WAY I would have been able to build my new company.

          I had a plan, I had saving, I had investors. Within four years I had grown from my home office to an office with two employees, then by 2001 I had an office of over 5000 sq. ft and 10 employees.

          I didn’t do that by working two jobs.

          I see your point very clearly, and you are right, and it takes a TON of time working two jobs (or more) to get to your goal. I do not call them dreams, as dreams NEVER come true. But, if you work hard and plan, you will make it. It won’t be easy and it WILL be scary. The success stories are the ones out there that took (logical) risks. You will have your failures, but it is how you learn and react to those failures that makes you a success.

          Running your own business is NOT for everyone, believe me. But, if you REALLY want to do your art full-time, you either have to get hired by a studio, or you work as an independent. And it seems more and more that independent artists are the norm.

          I enjoy good conversation and if you have opposing opinions, bring them on. It’s great to hear what folks have to say.

          I am a very strong believer in setting goals and then accomplishing those goals. That’s what started this whole thing. 🙂

          • This is a bit of an emotional issue to me. My elder sister wanted to be an artist. Everyone told her “you can’t make it unless you throw yourself into it 100%.” So she did. For years she slaved away, living lean, getting into galleries, networking, painting/creating things she didn’t enjoy just to pay the bills. Finally, just as she was starting to make the tiniest bit of headway, she ran out of options. She wanted to have a family, and she no longer had the resources to afford one.

            Now she works as a financial consultant. As far as I know, she hasn’t painted much of anything in a long time. She seems happy, so who am I to say that it was wrong? Still, it has always seemed to me that she doomed her dream/goal/business by not giving herself enough options. She worked hard. She planned. It wasn’t enough.

            Because planning and hard work are only part of the whole picture. There is also being able to capitalize on opportunities of chance (what some call luck) and time. If the plan does not give you access to those two elements, then in my opinion that is a problem. Right now, that’s what working two jobs (my day job and my webcomic) gives me.

            If I quit my job, what would I gain? Time, certainty. That would go into making more content. It could go into further networking, online and locally. It could go into marketing. It could go into book preparation or product development.

            What do I lose? The money to fund marketing or products. The opportunities to get further education that may benefit my future business ventures. The ability to focus on making the product the best it can be, rather than paying bills. The benefits of time, to allow word-of-mouth to spread about my work.

            What do I have either way? Networking/marketing opportunities and time to create content, just on a smaller scale. For now.

            I guess it seems to me that you are saying the best order is (1)Plan, (2)quit job, (3) start project. Whereas I believe that working two jobs for a while should be PART of the plan. If I’m working 40 hours on commissions, or working 40 hours in a cube, I’m still not working for me. I’d rather build up my brand from a position of security so that when I transition to being an independent, ALL the work I do is for me.

          • First off, I obviously had no idea of the emotional attachment, and sorry to have hit a nerve.

            No, I am not saying: 1-Plan, 2- Quit job, 3- Start project.

            It’s Plan, Start Project… then when properly Capitalize, Quit job and focus on that. You can’t do TWO full-time careers, one will suffer for sure, that was my real point. I think I’m confusing folks with the term JOB and when I really mean is CAREER. I consider a job a career at my point in my life (54) as working at Wal-Mart is NOT an option for me (yet 🙂

            If I did your order, I’d quit doing websites 4 years ago and lose my only income. Not what I am saying. But I know I can’t do both websites and cartooning effectively FULL TIME so something will have to give. I am going to Capitalize my current cartooning efforts and then “open shop” and proceed with a plan.

            Does taking risks always work out? Hell no. And I’m sorry it didn’t work for your sister. I lost $500,000 in 2004 to a crooked partner walking out on me, leaving me with nothing but angry creditors and many, many lawyers breathing down my neck. I said I’ve had my failures and THAT was a dandy. I learned from it and am just able to start to think about moving on.

            But that failure led me to cartooning, so it was a *good* thing in the long run.

            Will I be successful at cartooning? Depends on how you define it. Will I make a living? Only time… and my business plan… will tell. And yes, some of it IS based solely on luck, and that part is the scary part.

            Thanks for the engaging conversation. I am STILL a staunch supporter of independents. We make the world go round.

          • Wow I didn’t know I was such a conversation starter. And I agree with Robin that the best laid plans don’t work out without a little luck or proper timing.

            Byron I think you and were saying the same thing. You have a well thought out plan. Many people I come across have a plan that in 6 months they are going to go viral like xcdx and make mint. That’s it.

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